More than 30 asylum seekers went on hunger strike Sunday, increasing pressure on the Australian government to review its treatment of refugees after a series of claims that child sex abuse, brutality and poor living conditions are rife in detention camps.
"Our staff are talking to them all the time and are willing to discuss any issues with them and are offering medical treatment if they need it and food if they want it," an immigration department spokesman said of the hunger strikers, but added that their refusal to eat would get them nowhere.
Australia is the only Western country to have a policy of mandatory, non-revisable detention for people who arrive here seeking asylum and while the government appears to be standing firm, the calls for change are intensifying.
Amnesty International, legal and church leaders and the country's main welfare and ethnic bodies have all spoken out against Canberra's stance.
Matters came to a head last week when investigations were launched by the Child Protection Agency into claims by health workers that a father raped his son and sold him for sex at the troubled Woomera detention center in the South Australian desert.
Medical officers said it was not an isolated case.
Woomera, which currently houses 275 people, has been described by newspapers here as "Australia's shame".
A peaceful protest staged at the center against living conditions turned violent in August when 80 detainees burnt buildings and injured staff. On Sunday, 30 detainees began a hunger strike.
The unrest is not restricted to Woomera. In July, 140 would-be refugees barricaded themselves in at Sydney's Villawood camp and threatened to cut their throats, complaining over what they described as inhumane conditions and alleged mistreatment.
On the other side of the country in Western Australia a series of fires was started on Saturday at the Port Hedland detention center. Earlier this year a dozen boatpeople at the Curtin camp sewed their lips together as part of a protest.
Most of those detained have fled places like Afghanistan and Iraq, buying their passage from people-smugglers in Indonesia.
Amnesty spokeswoman Carolyn Graydon said their mandatory detention contravened Australia's international obligations.
"The asylum seekers who arrive in Australia are detained for no other reason than the fact that they are arriving unlawfully and that results in them being detained for an indefinite period," she said.
"There is no other Western country that has such a draconian detention regime."
West Australian Chief Justice David Malcolm on Saturday said the treatment of refugees was insensitive and restrictive.
"While the description by one writer of Australia's refugee policy as 'the most draconian in the world' may seem emotive, it is a policy that is both restrictive and apparently insensitive by comparison to other countries such as Canada," he said.
"Perhaps the most objectionable element of current Australian refugee law is that which dictates the mandatory detention of all unauthorized arrivals."
He said it questioned Australia's commitment to the fundamental right of liberty which was a foundation of democracy.
Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock though is unfazed.
"The department is strongly committed to ensuring detainees are kept in conditions of safety and dignity," he said, adding that asylum claims were generally dealt with in a timely manner.
"Those who are detained for longer periods than matters of a month or so, are those where there are genuine security issues and also character questions that have not been able to be adequately addressed in the time available" -- SYDNEY (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)